Thoughts on the Aesthetic Experience

When writing up my last post about the importance of presentation in relation to the viewer’s reaction to art, I was reminded of an interview that a former student of mine and fellow photographer, Kayla Wandsnider, conducted with me a few months ago. She was curious to know my thoughts on the nature of the aesthetic experience. I told her a story that once again speaks to the power of context and presentation in the experience of art:

KW: I believe that environment can play a substantial role in an aesthetic experience. Do you think that this is true?

JAS: Yes, totally. And experience I had in Salzburg, Austria, comes immediately to mind. It was a very gloomy, rainy day and I was cold and wet and tired. While walking down a narrow street in the inner city on my way back to my hotel, I decided to go into a church I happened to be passing. The building was nothing special on the outside- in fact, it was so plain that I almost didn’t recognize it as a church. I went in because I simply wanted to sit down and rest for a while.  At the exact moment that I entered, the opening chords of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor rang out unexpectedly, filling the church with glorious sound that seemed to cascade torrentially out of the heavens. At the same time, light poured down through the church’s long, slender windows, in stark contrast to the overcast gloom outside. I was completely paralyzed with shock. I hadn’t expected it to be so light inside, hadn’t known that music of any kind would be playing, hadn’t anticipated that I would suddenly be experiencing something so moving, so beautiful, so arresting. I could hardly breathe, it was was so overwhelming.

I sank slowly into a pew as the music continued to play, not really seeing anything, living completely in the moment. It felt like time was suspended.

The combination of the location, the weather, the light, the music, my physical state and, yes, the unexpectedness of it all, led to one of the most profound aesthetic experiences of my life. And it wasn’t about the church building, it wasn’t about the music itself, it was an experience that came about because  ALL of those things put together transported me to…. Somewhere Else. I will never forget it.

The Importance of Presentation

There was a great article in the NY Times a couple of days ago that ruminated on the nature of museum artifacts and the power they have to emotionally move viewers, as well as to intellectually stimulate them. There are a number of shows currently up in NYC that succeed at these tasks more or less successfully.

Part of the article discussed that the manner in which these artifacts are presented to the public makes a huge difference in how the public perceives and experiences them. If one can view the artifact in close physical proximity, “The artifact becomes a spur to the imagination: It reveals history as something lived, and thus as a result of choices made. We come more alert to the ways things are, and how different they might yet be…”

But, it goes on to say:

“If an exhibition is staged so we are placed too close to another world without being given tools to make sense of it, the effect is disorienting rather than clarifying. The artifacts can amaze, but we can’t use our imagination to go further.”

Exactly! The full article can be found here.

“The Paradox of Art as Work”

In a NY Times article published on May 11 titled “The Paradox of Art as Work”, writer and critic A. O. Scott examines the relationship between art and money. One part of the article in particular stood out to me and is quoted here:

“In the popular imagination, artists tend to exist either at the pinnacle of fame and luxury or in the depths of penury and obscurity- rarely in the middle, where most of the rest of us toil and dream. They are subject to admiration, envy, resentment and contempt, but it is odd how seldom their efforts are understood as work. Yes, it’s taken for granted that creating is hard, but also that it’s somehow fundamentally unserious. Schoolchildren may be encouraged (at least rhetorically) to pursue their passions and cultinvate their talents, but as they grow up, they are warned away from artistic careers. This attitude, always an annoyance, is becoming a danger to the health of creativity itself.”

He goes on to make other excellent points that I won’t go into here. But I myself have experienced time and again that attitude he describes about art being seen as “unserious”, and it annoys me just as much today as it did decades ago when I first experienced it. If the work artists do is “unserious”, then I’d like to be able to wave a magic wand and eliminate any and all things visual, aural, written, etc. that have been created by artists throughout the centuries and see what would be left. How many buildings would be missing? How many sounds? What would the world actually look and sound like without the works of artists?

Then let’s talk about artists being “unserious”!!!